Book Review from the February 1939 issue of the Socialist Standard
Warning from the West Indies by W. M. MacMillan. (Penguin Special, 6d.)
To-Day, when Germany and Italy are demanding colonies, when the British and French governments are holding fast to theirs, and when leaders of all shades—Communist, Labour, Liberal and Conservative—are doing their utmost to make the British workers believe that the British Empire is worth defending with their lives, it is very fitting that these workers, who would bear the brunt of the fighting in the event of war, should know what they would be defending.
Are we not told that it would be inhuman if the British Government handed any of its colonies over to the savagery of the totalitarian governments? Well, it is worth asking how the British colonies are administered, in order to find out if the subject peoples would lose by a change of masters.
An insight into the character of British rule over colonial peoples can be obtained from Mr. W. M. MacMillan’s "Warning from the West Indies.” This book shows the results of imperialism, and should convince all workers that British imperialism is no better than any other.
The title is very apt. Indeed, it is a warning, from the West Indies that British workers would be sacrificing themselves in vain if they backed their Government in a war with another country over colonies.
Though we are well aware that “Home Rule" solves none of the problems of a working class, it is worth noting that "No British Crown colony of other than European population has 'grown up' to attain responsible government ” (p. 26). That fact alone is sufficient to expose the lying assertion that the British are in the colonies to help the natives along the road of progress. It shows, also, how much a capitalist government is interested in fostering democracy. Although the British Government has been ruling some colonies for many generations, Mr. MacMillan is able to make the following observation: "In the West Indies, and in the Empire as a whole, the development of the backward peoples has hardly yet begun" (p. 169).
Until 1838 chattel slavery was carried on in the West Indies. Since the slaves were "emancipated,” their position has changed very little— save that formerly they were fed, clothed and housed by their masters, whilst now they work for wages, and feed, clothe and house themselves as best they can.
“Emancipation,” says Mr. MacMillan, "only meant the substitution of a low wage for the previous outlay on the purchase and maintenance of slaves, besides absolving employers from responsibility" (p. 69). And again : —
“But, in spite of a growing middle class, a large but uncertain proportion of the population are very much where slavery left them" (p. 53).
And that, let it be noted, after a hundred years of “freedom" and “progress” under British rule.
In the towns of the West Indies slums are general (p. 101). Even when the Government launches a housing scheme the houses are beyond the means of the poorer sections of the population. “These remain as they were, crowded in insanitary dwellings, even in the country” (p. 119). The latest Trinidad Commission severely condemned housing conditions.
Incidentally, we agree with Mr. MacMillan when he says, "Bad housing is obviously only part of the familiar problem of poverty and cannot be dealt with in isolation,” and we would urge workers to ask themselves how it is that, wherever capitalism penetrates, slums are to be found.
Unemployment is rife in the West Indies, and provision has had to be made for the indigent poor (p. 95). “In Barbados, in particular, special effort is needed to save the unemployed from starvation. In other islands they can live more easily on friends with small holdings, or, failing these, gather wild produce from the forest." (Italics ours.) This last sentence shows how concerned the British Government is for its subject peoples.
Every island in the West Indies has its beggars. Says MacMillan, “Almost every island is desperately afflicted with beggars of all kinds—'sturdy' beggars a few of them, but many not so sturdy. Especially in the larger islands, where tourist influence is strong, the visitor has to suffer importunate begging from the obviously inadequately employed . . . a not uncommon salutation is ‘I beg you somet'ing' "(p. 105).
Naturally, with so much poverty and with so many slums, malnutrition and ill-health are widespread. The poor, being inadequately fed, have not the power to resist epidemics. “The school medical officer for Kingston has produced evidence that undernourishment is very general, and that teachers find it prevents many children from working" (p. 123).
Mr. MacMillan's case is that the malnutrition is due to the fact that there is no variety in the diet, but he says—and note this—“Even if good feeding were available and understood, agricultural wages would not buy it. . . ."
And so we could continue to quote from this book to show that, in these British colonies, conditions are revolting for the poor. And such, fellow workers, is the state of affairs you will be called upon to defend in the event of a war over colonies.
It is not surprising that strikes have broken out among the workers of the West Indies during the last two years. These are but the beginning. Some day, those workers will be lined up with their brothers in other parts of the world, and with them they will demand the end of exploitation, and this will end poverty, slums and malnutrition. They will be demanding the change from capitalism to Socialism.